Are the companies that bring us junk food and sugary drinks funding feel-good research studies to mask what they're really doing—driving conditions such as obesity and diabetes to record-high levels, particularly among Blacks and Latinos?
Two recent studies in medical journals build on the mounting evidence: Food and drink makers are funding their own research studies that (not surprisingly) fail to reveal the health risks from their products that have been repeatedly proven elsewhere. At the same time, these companies are coming up with creative corporate-responsibility campaigns that hide the risks of empty calories behind campaigns for wellness, exercise, and support of Black and Latino communities—the very ones that would benefit most from replacing processed food with fresh choices.
Nowhere is the impact of corporate muscle more evident than in New York City, where 58 percent of adults are overweight or obese, with that rate reaching 70 percent in Black, Latino and low-income communities—and where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has faced a barrage of criticism for his plan to ban the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 oz. Organizations like the NAACP—which has a goal to eradicate health disparities—has sued to block the law, claiming it will hurt minority-owned small businesses (not to mention the effect the ban will have on the NAACP's deep-pocketed corporate sponsors). The federal government has been asked to step in, but so far nothing's happened.
It's not all bad news from corporate America. Some health-based organizations take a direct approach to bringing healthy food to communities they serve. Kaiser Permanente has had Community Health Initiatives since 2004—with strategies such as supporting a weekly farmers market in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood (where 98 percent of residents are Black or Latino) beginning to show results; and a commitment to provide healthier food to Kaiser's own employees and patients. Kaiser Permanente and Time Warner's HBO have also funded the documentary series The Weight of the Nation, shown on HBO last spring but now available free online.